“What’s it like being a real person?”
Recent college graduates hear this all the time, especially if they choose not to go directly to grad school. It is an ironic sort of question that diminishes the importance of being a student. Student life is an easy one, where the food is made for you and your dorm room is part of the tuition your parents pay. Student life is a series of parties and pizza places punctuated by papers and mid-terms. Student life is wonderful and ever changing. And the afterward, our “real life,” is a daunting land of shadow, a sea in which to plumb the lessons of emerging adulthood.
A week or two after you graduate, the lurching metamorphosis from college student to “real person” begins. When the euphoria of accomplishment and self-importance wears off, we feel anxious because we should be doing something productive… right? When is the next test? What’s the next assignment, the next stage? This is inevitable: college conditions us to fear the unbearable lightness of downtime. But when you’re a “real person,” you are the one who must decide the wide-open of the near future.
That is why we work. After knowing twenty years of school, we fledgling “real people” find a world in which homework and grades are conspicuously absent, a world in which jobs and expenses abound. By working during the week, by making moves and doing business and earning paper, we buy groceries and train tickets and underwear. We eat these groceries to make energy to do work to get more intangible funds deposited in our bank accounts to buy more groceries. The “real life” life cycle!
Being a “real person” means finally contributing to The System after a life of receiving from it. I do it by teaching French children to speak English. And damn, it can feel productive. I feel integral, depended upon, nutrient-rich. I’m like a citric acid cycle spinning off reduced molecules and metabolic intermediates, executing anapleurotic reactions, ever turning, but my NADH is vocabulary, my oxaloacetate is grammar, my carbon dioxide is confusion.
“Real life” is good but hard. Although I teach only twelve hours a week, the job can be pretty difficult. My students’ very low level of English is not problematic: it is their age. My students are between 13 and 15 years old, an age which compels them to explore the far reaches of misbehavior. The difficulty of my job thus springs not from the fact that my students rarely understand me or that they can’t string together simple sentences, but rather from their principled disrespect for authority and their very short attention spans.
This means that in order to maintain order, to keep my students engaged, and to make sure they have some idea of what I’m talking about, I must resort to a bizarre mix of energetic miming, recurring dances and jokes, sporadic disciplining, and an unacceptable amount of spoken French. Sometimes I worry about hidden cameras, because if my boss were to see some of my lessons, she would have to conclude that she had employed some kind of unpredictable, bilingual clown who didn’t make it to orientation.
Even though I rarely feel like my students benefit from my presence, I actually really like my job. I can’t really fault my students for their poor behavior because I see in them reflections of my teenage self in my vague recollections of actually being a student.
My old French teachers are memorable first for the not-unexpected language-teacher deviation from “regular” teachers. My French teachers’ styles of dress and interaction bore that tinge of foreignness, and their teaching styles and peculiarities seemed a little more absurd than those of science and history teachers, sometimes to an endearing extent, sometimes not.
I also remember that although I was generally a good student, I often got in trouble in French class. My methods were diverse and, looking back, quite interesting. I could derail a lesson by imitating for thirty or more seconds the frozen expressions of French over-actors from a dated budget French textbook. One day I realized that blasting my Walkman through my headphones yielded music audible to everyone in the classroom except for my teacher: this revelation frequently compelled me to host impromptu, trebly concerts. Whether it was my attitude toward my teachers or a reaction to being bad at a subject, misbehavior was acceptable to me in French class.
The strongest memories, however, are the many flashbulb memories of my teachers’ manifestations of anger toward me, which I experienced with denial and indignation. He’s so lame, he’s so dumb, he’s so unfair. Now, the tables have turned, and I am becoming the kind of uncool, grumpy authority figure I once defied.
Last week, Madame Doisnel gave me half her class, and directed me to an empty classroom across the hall. I invited my fifteen students, whom I already knew fairly well, to sit down.
I threw a transparency of a political cartoon up on the overhead projector. I covered up most of the cartoon, trying to construct a narrative by asking questions and gradually revealing more details. The diptych cartoon compared dumb-looking cows branded by a cowboy and dumb-looking teenagers wearing brand-name t-shirts. The goal was to teach the nuanced meaning of the word brand, and, time-permitting, to provoke deep thoughts about consumer culture.
At first, the lesson was going pretty well.
“And how would you describe this cow?” I asked patiently.
“He is stupide,” said a voice.
“Good! He is stoo-pid. Repeat after me: That cow looks stoo-pid!”
About three students half-heartedly botched the accent. Stoo-peed. Four or five students pointed outside at the falling snow. Statistically speaking, my lesson was less interesting than snowfall.
As I turned to write our new sentence on the blackboard, somebody spoke a strangely familiar phrase.
I stopped writing and turned around. A crossroads: asking who said that would yield blank, silent faces, since the solidarity among troublemaking French students is second only to that of their parents’ labor unions. On the other hand, explaining the injurious and shocking nature of the phrase would only foment additional inquiries about gray areas and gradients. Should I say “screw you” instead, next time? Is “fuck” worse than “shit?” (These are, in fact, extremely important distinctions for true English fluency, but unfortunately “fuck” and “shit” and its colorful conjugations needn’t enter one’s lexicon until one already knows how to say things like But of course or Where is the train station? or I hate this class.)
So I issued a solemn prohibition of the use of such phrases in class. Then, a bluff:
“If I hear something like that one more time, we’re taking a pop quiz. For a grade.”
I don’t know whether it was a quavering voice, or a forehead twitch, or the hasty addition of for a grade, or the fact I’d brought no bag and only two transparencies to class, but my students correctly characterized my threat as empty.
After I finished writing That cow looks stupid! on the blackboard, I returned to the overhead projector to the unveil the next part of the cartoon: a mark (a brand!) on the stupid cow’s haunch.
“That cow looks like Ophélie,” one student remarked in French, referring to a girl in the front row.
“It’s got the mark of a whore,” said another.
I chose to focus on the first half of this sentence. “Good! It has a mark!”
At this point, I noticed that a girl seemed to be crawling around on the floor in the back row of the class. Clearly an offense. However, I realized that the wording of my threat contained no mention of floor-crawling.
“What are you doing?” I asked in French, silencing the room with one of my very-stern interrogatory tones.
“I’m looking for my pen,” she said innocently, smiling, as if this would clear everything up.
“Why are you on the floor?”
“My pen fell on the floor.”
“What you are doing is very distracting. Stay in your seat.”
“But what about my pen?”
Every student has what’s called a trousse, which is French for “a small zippered bag, full of pens of all kinds.” The way in which these trousses are thrown, traded, and stolen during class is reminiscent of the transactions of a prison economy complete with hierarchies and honor codes.
“Just use one of the many other pens in your trousse, or borrow a pen” I said helpfully. “Sit down.”
The student slowly returned to her chair. I returned to my lesson.
“So, Jean-Marc said that the cow has a mark! Why does the cow have a mark?”
Silence. A girl in the front row was diligently tearing an eraser into tiny pieces.
“Who puts the mark on the cow?” A pause. “Who puts the mark on the cow?”
“Coboy,” said a voice, as if responding to roll call.
“Good, Valentin! Cow-boy! A cowww-booy marks the cow.”
I turned to the girl who was disassembling her eraser.
“Julia, can you repeat what Valentin just said?”
Julia looked at me as if she didn’t like something about my face.
“Good! Cow-boy! Now, who can make a sentence with the verb ‘to mark’ and the word ‘cow-boy’?”
Miraculously, a student raised his hand.
“The coboy mark the co.”
“Good! The cow-boy marks the cow. Ophélie! Repeat that.”
“The coboy mark the co.”
“Good! Can we say cooowww? Tous ensemble! Coooowww.”
This time, my nasal call prompted a strong, equally nasal response.
“Excellent, now let’s look at another word…”
Arriving quickly at the crux of the lesson, I turned to write to brand on the board. It was then that I heard the exclamation over my shoulder, emphatic and soft, deliberate and private.
“Suck my cuck.”
“I’ve had it!” he screamed, blinking.
I quickly silenced my Walkman and turned away from my friend Luke.
Below his baldness, the lateral ridges measured even intervals down his forehead; and below his forehead sat a pair of bushy straight eyebrows, and below his eyebrows and behind two pieces of glass could be found his eyes. As he turned his head, his gaze swiveled from its peculiar lecturing target high up on the back wall; they beamed through the bottom of his spectacles; down his nose; toward my desk.
The classroom was the smoke in a field after the first volley. My hands, mouth, eyes opened skyward in incredulous prayer.
He strode to his desk, scribbled upon and tore from a notebook a pink slip of paper, bearing my name. An angry X specified “Principal.”
“You are to bring this to the office. You are to speak with the principal. You are to remain in the office for the remainder of the period.”
Like an athlete incurring a foul, I felt my head shaking and a smile formatting the corners of my mouth.
“I was just asking what you just said,” I complained.
“I’ve had enough,” he reiterated.
“Bring your backpack with you.”
My head hot with shame, my argument suffering fairness, my backpack heavy with textbooks, I obeyed. I carried myself with the slump of injustice. I felt the other students on my side, imagined commiseration in the halls later. I never considered the benefit my absence bestowed on the act of learning. I never considered my teacher’s relief, or remorse.
I turned and looked at the class; they quietly awaited a verdict.
I shook my head, genuinely disappointed but not surprised.
“That’s enough,” I said quietly. “Everyone pack up, we’re going back to Madame Doisnel’s classroom.”
Outrage! The ultimate unfairness! It was a policy flip-flop. I had said there would be a quiz, not a return to the main room. The main room, where their teacher would surely scold them all, get to the bottom of the problem, ban future visits with the American assistant.
Their appeals to the tyrant’s decision were met with obstinate head-shaking. The tyrant turned off the overhead projector and collected his transparencies. He stood by the door and waited. He endured his students as they passed into the hall.
That was my last class for the day. I left the school and began to walk through the snow back to my apartment. Another day of work done. Another batch of knowledge scattered into the room, projected into the air to fall like leaves into little baskets. My contribution to the system.
So what’s it like to be a “real person?” To be honest, it doesn’t feel different at all. One thing you might notice when you walk home through the snow is that you feel old. Not, like, old old, but older. Uncool and grumpy in the eyes of a high school student. But their opinion doesn’t really matter: they’re not even real people.